Photo: Blue Note Records

Gregory Porter: Nat “King” Cole & Me (review)

With lush arrangements courtesy of Vince Mendoza, Gregory Porter shines on a tribute to one of his major influences Nat "King" Cole.

The notion of Gregory Porter recording a Nat King Cole tribute album almost makes too much sense. With a voice that can alternate between silky highs and warm grumbling lows, the two-time Grammy-winning Porter is unquestionably one of the most important male jazz vocalists of our time. In fact, it’s easy to imagine him taking up the role of a modern-day Nat Cole: musician, gentleman, ambassador of jazz for today’s wide commercial audience.

Porter is known for writing much of his own material, so it’s revealing to hear how he interprets music inextricably linked to Cole. With Nat “King” Cole & Me Porter honors Cole not by mimicking him, but by channeling him: his warmth, his brevity, and his class.

Vocalists are typically the center of attention, but on his previous recordings Porter balanced the spotlight with being a unified ensemble player. On Cole & Me, however, he’s unavoidably front and center, and Porter handles this role with grace and a refined stateliness. “Mona Lisa” is just as rich and polished as one would hope, a golden standard that sets up the rest of the record. “Nature Boy” has always been a peculiar tune, but Porter does it justice by acting as a reserved narrator amidst fluttering strings and a delicate texture. By contrast, “Ballerina” is an uptempo swinger brimming with swagger and character.

Producer Vince Mendoza deserves as much credit for the beauty of Cole & Me as Porter. A former conductor of the versatile jazz orchestra Metropole Orkest, Mendoza’s lush and creative orchestrations give each song a new sensibility fusing classical textures and jazz colors. His arrangements craft small worlds for each tune that simultaneously honor Cole’s legacy while giving Porter new vehicles to call his own. The interactions between harp and horn on “Smile” is tender without being overly sentimental. Likewise, the unity between the string and wind instruments against piano, bass, and drums on “When Love Was King” simply shines.

At 12 tracks the album is lean enough to keep it from lagging into needless idol-worship, yet sometimes it feels a bit like checking off boxes. “L.O.V.E.” is a tight rundown, clocking in at just over two minutes, which fits a mold (although it fits it well). Closing track “The Christmas Song” would seem like an odd inclusion if the holiday season were not so close. Considering its swelling strings and cheery sentiment sounds like a heart-warming track you’ll hear soon enough on jazz stations. That’s not to say these are mediocre tracks–they’re rightly beautiful in their own (plus – it must be noted – both share tasteful contributions from trumpet player Terence Blanchard).

This, in part, references the danger of tribute records. Looking towards the past at elders and influences inevitably risks provoking more nostalgia than original material. It becomes a game of clocking out some past hits, some beloved classics, and perhaps an obscure tune or two. The more cynically minded would consider this nothing more than compiling a greatest hits collection and filtering it through a new voice. What makes Nat “King” Cole & Me works is how Porter honors Cole by distilling his influence. There’s a bit more bravado in his voice, much less of the reserved quality we can hear in Cole’s historic recordings. The lasting impact of modern R&B has sharpened Porter’s interpretive ideas, making him a contemporary response to Cole’s enduring legacy.

RATING 7 / 10